Ian Watmore (Cabinet Office supremo) speaks at efficiency conference

Thanks to the wonders of technology, I watched a live stream of Ian Watmore's speech to the Efficiency in Public Services conference last week (I can't find a link unfortunately).  Watmore is Permanent Secretary level and runs the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group, which leads procurement in the UK public sector.  Most of what was OGC reports into him - as do initiatives such as 'transparency' and the programme to negotiate savings from top suppliers.

He's a confident and competent speaker, rather than inspirational, talking without notes or slides.   I felt he came across at times with a detachment from the processes he was describing, observing and commenting on policies rather than being fully engaged (which arguably is exactly what you want from a top civil servant).

But I found his description of what he calls the "tight - loose" framework, which is guiding many Government actions, very informative; I haven't heard such a clear explanation of one of their fundamental principles before.  What this means is that certain things - largely operational (such as IT, procurement, policy on transparency) will be held "tightly" in the centre, while actual policy, and how it is delivered, will be largely "loose" - as we see in areas such as health and education, with greater devolution of power.

The coalition view is that Labour had it the wrong way round; they tried to control policy, while not managing operations tightly enough, with a resulting waste of money.

Now you can debate the politics of that, which isn't our role here, but it does explain the apparent contradiction between the tight Whitehall procurement controls now in place, and the apparent lack of interest in (for instance) trying to drive collaboration in local authorities or health.  "Tight / loose" in action.

Watmore did talk about 'complaints' from Permanent Secretaries that these controls were causing Government to seize up; but he didn't really offer a solution to that.  He also expressed some concern (personal I suspect) around the devolution aspect - whose fault will it be when things go wrong?  Will Whitehall really be able to say, "nothing to do with us guv, blame your local GP commissioning Group / academy / big society provider".  (That's my invented quote, not his).

He said he has banned the expression "we need to get more for less".  (He obviously hasn't got Eric Pickles on board with that...)   We cannot carry on doing things in the same way when it is cuts of 40% needed, Waytmore says, reasonably enough; he wants "better for less" instead.  For example, he spoke positively about Ken Clarke's justice reforms.

He (and Treasury) are cynical about  'spend to save' .  He wants to invert this - 'save to spend'.  He wants to move faster on savings to give the scope for new programmes. The approach to the top 30 suppliers is as an example of this, he says, saving £800 million this year.  (This perhaps explains a rumour I picked up last week - that Watmore wants to chop a higher percentage of staff from his area of Cabinet Office than his other top level colleagues.  I hear he wants to reduce heads by over 50% in his empire, which would presumably give him head-room for some new activities).

He then moved onto 'operational excellence'.  We operate under 'silly rules' (procurement quoted as an example).  Why does the public sector employ so many more people in HR than any other sector?  "We have to be smarter".  There has been talk of shared back office services forever - but progress has been "glacial".  He is spot on with that - but it is perhaps not surprising when some of the early shared service activities were such disasters - see the DfT centre for a great example. There's a lack of trust between Departments, and a lack of clear evidence that shared services in Whitehall have demonstrably worked; so quite a lot to overcome.  That's for another day perhaps...

We'll come back to the Q&A session at the end of his speech later; there were a couple of very interesting questions with significant procurement implications.

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